Man at His Best

What It's Like To Live With Uncontrollable Sexual Thoughts

"Your intrusive thoughts will disrupt the most beautiful moments in your life​."

BY HANNAH SMOTHERS | May 20, 2016 | Sex & Relationships

Aaron Harvey

Aaron Harvey, now 35, was about 12 years old when he started having disturbing thoughts that he couldn't get out of his head. But that changed two years ago, shortly after reading a story in The Guardian from a woman who wrote about living with intrusive thoughts about violence and sex that were unwanted and uncontrollable. Harvey realised he suffers from a specific type of obsessive compulsive disorder called Pure OCD, or "purely obsessional" compulsive disorder, in which the compulsions are all in the sufferer's brain and don't usually come with any visible ticks or symptoms. The disorder is relatively new as of 1989 when the first piece of literature was published on the subject, and is often diagnosed as general anxiety disorder. While Pure OCD is not currently mentioned in the Diagnostic Statistic Manual, it is widely enough recognised by the medical community to appear in the OCD section of textbooks like The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry

Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Harvey about his lifelong struggle with uncontrollable thoughts that are often extremely violent, graphic, or uncomfortably sexual, and what he's doing now to raise awareness of Pure OCD.

How are your disturbing thoughts different from the disturbing thoughts anyone might have?
[The thoughts] generally bucket in sex, violence, and religion—those are just three general themes. But there's no limit to your imagination, so your mind is constantly bombarding you with those kinds of things. And it's usually whatever is going to be the most destructive, most fucked up thing that you can possibly imagine. Everyone has intrusive thoughts, but people with Pure OCD also have an anxiety disorder, so when they see uncomfortable images, they start to feel upset, question their character, or question their capabilities. Ultimately, it leaves them to create weird habits and compulsions like hiding knives, not wanting to cook, leaving a relationship, or avoiding sex and intimacy so they can mitigate whatever anxiety it might be for them. 

What do you mean by "the most destructive, fucked up thing?"
One of the things I have to deal with the most is harm OCD, and it's really challenging. When I step into the shower and see the razor blade, it will automatically trigger [an image of] me, like, mutilating my genitalia. If I react to those images they just get worse. It's kind of like living in a nightmare.

I can also be plagued with sexual thoughts, which sometimes can actually be entertaining, but for the most part it's unwanted. I walk down Broadway and there's like a million people in the street, and next think you know it's like everyone's [orgasming] at the same time. But it doesn't come from a fantasy, it comes from a random kind of unwanted image.

What do some of your intrusive thoughts look like?
Since I was a child, I've had repeated, graphic, sexual thoughts of naked children. I've struggled with sexual identity as a result of repeated, intrusive sexual thoughts about men, despite being straight. During sex, I may have dozens of intrusive thoughts spanning incest, violence, and other unwanted imagery that steals the beauty of the moment. I have graphic flashes of friends and strangers engaging in bizarre sexual acts, which are sometimes entertaining, but always unwanted.

Do you remember what the first intrusive thought you had was?
I grew up in a Christian household and when I was 11, 12 years old, I would say the Lord's Prayer before I went to sleep. Right before I could finish the prayer, I would have this really horrific thought of doing something sexual to Jesus—like coming on Jesus' face. When you're a kid you're like, oh my god, what's wrong with me? I would repeat the prayer 100 times until I could get through it without having done that act. Then a voice in my head basically said, "You're a pedophile," and that was where the anxiety really gripped me in a way that changed my life. It's just horrific because you're constantly sitting there like, am I capable of this? why is my brain saying that? I started to avoid children.

So the intrusive thoughts happen, and the part that makes it Pure OCD is the fixation and anxiety that surrounds those thoughts? 
Correct, yeah. Your compulsion is how you try to neutralise the anxiety. So for me, when I had my first experience of being in the kitchen and having a visual of harming my ex-fiancé with a butcher knife, my first compulsion was to run to the drawer and put the knife away to neutralise that threat. Someone without OCD might be like what the fuck was that? and move on with their day, but for me, it was years and years of wondering if I could actually harm this person. I had thoughts like, If I love this person, why am I having these thoughts? Does this mean I might act out of my control at some point? If I really love her, should I leave her? Should I not be with her as a result of this thought? 

That's what you hear from the OCD community, is people making life decisions about whether they should have children or whether they can be a teacher or whether they can stay in a relationship. Like big picture, psychologically significant decisions that people are making as a result of playing into that fear and anxiety.

How does the OCD affect your daily life?
Just starting the day, you have to be skilled at finding your way to not provide any weight or value to your thoughts. Because the second you do it repeats, and the repetitive aspect means I could flash thousands of images in a day, or in a minute flash dozens of images. They always one-up each other.

Can people tell you're struggling with these thoughts just being around you?
I think that's the hardest thing for sufferers, is that there really is no indication. I have little quirks and things, like if I see something that is really disturbing, I might grab my chin or rub my face or something because I'm so disturbed by it. I feel everything but pain—like whatever act just happened to me in my mind, I experience the visual, the adrenaline surge, and the anxiety associated with it but not the actual pain of it happening. For the most part, though, you can live with it.

Are there certain things that trigger disturbing thoughts?
For me, anything violent, anything sexual... it's really random. My number one trigger is a knife. I'm going through exposure response prevention now where one of my first steps is just leaving a butcher knife on my butcher block or cutting board. I leave it there and pass it every day on the way to the bathroom. The idea is that I will slowly desensitise myself. I'd love to get to the point where I can have people over to my apartment and cook and feel comfortable that I'm carrying knives. Now, I grip them very lightly so that if my arm swings, I can drop it. That's literally the level of like, you know, the kind of bullshit you try to figure out in order to mitigate the risk that doesn't really exist. 

Since your thoughts are often sexual, does your OCD make it difficult for you to have sex?
It really can. My experience with OCD is that your intrusive thoughts will try to disrupt the most beautiful moments in your life. Like, in your mind you know you're having sex with this person that you love or care about, but your mind is swiping through images of your parents, your grandparents, like some horrific, incestuous type thing. Or maybe their face turns into roadkill, or there's some horrific contraption where you're cutting the person while you're having sex. Just anything. There's no limit to it. 

I can have dozens and dozens of intrusive thoughts while I'm being intimate with someone and that just increases the pressure of the whole experience. Like, what if I lose interest in the person, or lose interest in having sex with now and then they think I'm losing interest in them? That actually happened in my previous relationship [with my ex-wife]. I was struggling so bad with intrusive thoughts during sex that we kind of stopped being intimate because she started to have issues with how she thought I perceived her body. That's how fucked up the whole thing is, you know. She felt that I wasn't into it anymore.

Did you tell her about your thoughts?
During those two years when we were on the outs with our marriage and I'd finally figured out what it was, I sat down and explained it to her. She was like, "Holy shit, I had no idea. I always knew there was some dark aspect to you." It was kind of cool to hear her standing up for me, she was like, "You would never do those things, you would never." 

How did you figure out your thoughts were Pure OCD?
It was two years ago. I was at South by Southwest, traveling for work. My harm thoughts had gotten so bad that day, and I remember seeing a description of Pure O and being like, holy shit, mouth on the floor, every hair on my body raised. I can't explain that emotion in words. I'm not one to self-diagnose, but I knew that's what I had.

And then I stumbled on Rose's article and it was this beautiful woman talking about her experiences very openly and candidly, and it was like, wow, OK, maybe there is a human side to this. Then I started digging and digging and reading and reading. 

Were you ever formally diagnosed with Pure OCD?
I've been officially diagnosed with OCD as well as chronic depression, ADHD, and generalised anxiety disorder. Medical professionals do not use terms like Purely Obsessional, because Pure O isn't a scientifically derived name—it's a nickname that has distinguished Pure O sufferers from those with OCD who have observable rituals. 

People with Pure O are often misdiagnosed because Pure OCD doesn't feature outward compulsive manifestations, but instead, the anxiety-inducing obsessions take place only in the mind. Misdiagnosed patients are forced to go through conventional forms or therapy that end up doing more harm than good. 

Tell me about your project, and how you hope it'll help other people who feel they suffer from Pure OCD.
When I realised I had it, I had to really dig deep in the message forums and go on YouTube and find people posting stuff, and it was really kind of a deep dig to figure out what was going on and what was good information. It took me two years to figure all that out and so my inspiration for IntrusiveThoughts.org was like, how can I take all of this and boil it down for a younger audience, and do it in a very visual, story-telling way? I'm hoping my site is helping people view this in an easier way, there's a lot of relatable people there.

Do you have advice for other people suffering from Pure OCD?
The most important thing is to get as educated as possible. That doesn't mean to obsessively look and find out if you're capable of doing things, it means to actually get educated. A lot of people aren't educated enough to where they can talk about this with parents or loved ones or whatever else. If you are educated on the subject, you can talk about this with anyone. Because you will know that you are not crazy, you are not a psychopath, you're experiencing an anxiety disorder. 

From: Cosmopolitan.